Reflecting on the UN’s strategic role as an international partner in Libya and identifying the UN’s comparative advantages and limitations with its current mandate.

Human Rights and Accountability 

The continued deterioration of human rights conditions throughout Libya and the absence of systematic legal and political accountability for individuals implicated in human rights violations remain pressing concerns.

The UN has continued to observe “unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, conflict-related sexual violence, [and] human trafficking” since early 2022.

In recent months the Libyan authorities have also curtailed civil society and individual freedoms amid “a rapid shrinking of civic space.”  

Participants deplored the lack of concrete steps taken by domestic and international partners to integrate human rights throughout the political process. This was encapsulated by the mediation process’s perceived exclusion of the Libyan public and civil society organizations, including women human rights defenders, whose concerns are reportedly only reflected when they align with the interests of political leaders. 

While the International Follow-Up Committee on Libya includes a Working Group on International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, participants argued that discussions on human rights have not translated into tangible commitments.

Further, participants argued that perpetrators of human rights abuses need to be held accountable, including through the International Criminal Court (ICC). UN member states are arguably obliged to cooperate with the court, and participants recommended providing it more political, financial, and logistical support.

This cooperation needs to extend to efforts to prosecute serious crimes committed in Libya in national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

A Libyan NGO also recently recommended preventing “individuals implicated in corruption, war crimes and crimes against humanity,” as well as individuals indicted by the ICC, from serving in any formal political role.

Another challenge is the uncertain future of the International Fact-Finding Mission (IFFM) for Libya. The IFFM was mandated by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2020 and has published two formal reports. 

Many participants insisted on the importance of maintaining the IFFM, which, along with the UN, is one of the only international actors that can bring global attention to violations and abuses and provide tangible recommendations to the Libyan state.

The IFFM’s mandate is set to expire at the end of June 2022, and some participants expressed concern that the Human Rights Council would not reauthorize it because of pressure from the Libyan government, though others disputed this view.

Economic Dimensions of the Conflict

Libya’s ongoing political instability is inextricably linked to its economic challenges. Competition for control over oil resources (the most lucrative source of public revenue in Libya) and the persistent cycle of elite-driven political violence have hamstrung the Libyan government’s efforts to reduce poverty and economic inequality and provide social welfare. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will only exacerbate this economic situation.

Despite international efforts to facilitate short-term agreements on economic issues, core disagreements remain, including on the reunification of the Libyan Central Bank and the operationalization of its Board of Directors, the creation of a unified state budget, and transparent mechanisms for sharing oil revenue.

The dispute over salaries and operational payments for Libya’s National Oil Corporation between January and April 2022, part of the broader conflict between the HoR and HCS, has exacerbated political tensions.

Despite recent discussions on interim financial arrangements in the International Follow-Up Committee on Libya’s Working Group on Economic Issues, more progress is needed. A participant also noted the lack of transparency surrounding the purpose and function of this initiative. 

The Way Forward for UN Engagement

While participants agreed that the UN continues to be an important partner to Libya, some called for UNSMIL and the Security Council to more clearly articulate and better communicate a strategy that leverages the strengths and limitations of UN engagement.

Others emphasized the need for greater international unity on Libya, both through unified support to formal international processes and through the deconfliction of competing national agendas.

Finally, participants stressed the importance of ensuring a smooth leadership transition between the outgoing UN special adviser and her successor and of increasing UNSMIL’s capacity to engage on economic issues and mainstream human rights. 

Articulating the UN’s Comparative Advantages and a Clearer Strategy 

Most participants pointed to UNSMIL’s convening power and long-term engagement with key Libyan stakeholders as important comparative advantages.

One speaker also noted its ability to be an impartial actor, draw on support from other UN entities, and pursue a sustainable political solution premised on national ownership. However, some were unclear whether UNSMIL has a mandate and adequate reach to ensure cohesion between the UN-led process in Cairo, the International Follow-Up Committee on Libya, and bilateral channels for dialogue.

Discussion about how UNSMIL should prioritize its mandate revolved around two main considerations.

The first was the need to balance short-term substantive priorities, in particular electoral support, with long-term investments aimed at tackling the root causes of conflict, including support to political reconciliation, economic development, public administration, DDR, SSR, and accountability for human rights violations.

The second consideration was the need to better integrate UNSMIL’s political engagement with its work in other areas, particularly human rights. The 2021 independent strategic review of UNSMIL echoed this point, recommending a stronger approach and structural mechanisms “to consider not only the political process, but also economic, security, humanitarian and human rights priorities, mindful of the interlinkages between them.”

Many speakers acknowledged the limitations and challenges of the UN’s current approach in Libya. Some called for a recalibration of its strategy to outline concrete steps it could take to reach the desired end state following the talks in Cairo.

Some also disputed the UN’s interpretation of “national ownership,” as the dialogue process in Cairo centers on officials from the HoR and HCS, who do not have popular mandates or formal constituencies.

This concern extended to the UN’s impartiality: while the UN is not formally backing either delegation, it is vulnerable to criticism from both delegations and from the general public that it is backing the political elite. 

Some also questioned the consistency of the UN’s engagement with civil society organizations and communities throughout the country. Over the past few months, Special Adviser Williams has prioritized virtual and in-person consultations with Libyan organizations and communities.

Nonetheless, some participants described this engagement as ad hoc and transactional. They emphasized that UNSMIL should regularize engagement with civil society and communities and more consistently foster a bottom-up approach across all UN-supported political processes. 

Participants also encouraged the UN to better communicate its short- and medium-term strategies for engagement in Libya. While the UN’s overall approach is clearly defined by Security Council resolutions, UNSMIL could more clearly communicate how it will prioritize its mandate in the pursuit of a broader vision for a peaceful, united, and independent Libya.

Maintaining Unified Political Support from UN Member States

UNSMIL is in a difficult position in Libya as it attempts to implement its mandate while also managing the conflicting interests of UN member states, particularly in the Security Council. Many participants acknowledged that the national interests of other member states continue to have an outsize impact on political interests and conflict dynamics in Libya.

It is therefore essential that the Security Council remain united when it comes to Libya. While the council has been united in backing the recent technical rollovers of UNSMIL’s mandate, unity will be all the more important during the upcoming substantive mandate renewal.

It will also be important to continue mobilizing international attention and resources as the situation in Libya falls down the list of international priorities, particularly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Moreover, international partners will need to consider what tools and processes they can use to hold Libyan political elites accountable for their commitments, including on international human rights and humanitarian law. 

Ensuring a Smooth Leadership Transition and Building Capacity in Key Areas

Special Adviser Williams is expected to leave her post at the end of June 2022, and council members have started negotiations on her replacement. Williams’s successor will be the ninth UN envoy for Libya in the past eleven years, and envoy appointments have proven challenging for the council.

While most recent appointees have had high-level diplomatic experience, participants suggested considering other criteria when filling this position. Above all, participants noted the importance of a quick transition, especially considering that the new envoy will also become the head of UNSMIL, as recommended by the 2021 independent strategic review.

It is also important that the appointment process not distract from the ongoing political process, where the UN envoy has a critical leadership role. Nonetheless, there was an acknowledgement that the UN should account for the possibility of a disruptive leadership transition.

Participants also discussed the need to increase UNSMIL’s budget and staffing to engage on economic issues and human rights, a recommendation echoed in the independent strategic review.

One participant noted the particular urgency of boosting the mission’s expertise on economic issues, as there is only one seconded official in the mission with this portfolio despite the importance of engagement in this domain.


The situation in Libya is complex, and the outcomes of ongoing dialogue processes remain uncertain. These processes also suffer from limitations, including the lack of meaningful engagement with civil society, the involvement of several states with diverging interests, the focus on short-term stability rather than the root causes of conflict and long-term priorities, and the lack of a right-based approach.

In this context, there is a sense that the UN must recalibrate its strategy to make itself more relevant and credible. 

To that end, participants urged the UN to leverage its role as an impartial actor that can increase cohesion among the various dialogue initiatives, hold stakeholders accountable, and sustain engagement with civil society groups.

Participants also identified the need for the UN to develop and implement a more holistic approach to its mandate by focusing more on economic issues and mainstreaming human rights across all processes.

This will require more resources and a quick transition to replace the special adviser. Further, participants noted that UNSMIL needs to effectively communicate its strategy and priorities, including its desired “end state.”

Finally, participants urged the Security Council to remain unified and to continue prioritizing Libya and for all member states to ensure that their actions are consistent with their stated positions.


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